As Murphy Treks Across The State, Charlottesville Shares The Road With A World Of Issues

By:  Dan Haar
Hartford Courant

It was a long way between people for Sen. Chris Murphy in the eastern stretches of the state on Sunday. When he did run into someone on his walk across Connecticut, local issues — school enrollment, farm preservation and of course, property taxes — tended to come up first.

But this is no ordinary summer weekend for the nation. The standoff and tragedy involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. emerged as a topic on people’s minds, though certainly not as hot as on cable TV news.

Sitting around a table at the newly refurbished Scotland General Store, Murphy chatted with three supporters. After the subject of out-of-towners arose, Ann Gruenberg made the connection.

“I was thinking about that, with what happened in Virginia,” said Gruenberg, of Hampton. The right-wing marchers and torch-bearers, she said, “was people from out of town.”

That gave her a measure of comfort in a week when discomfort dominates at every level, between the standoff with North Korea, the national introspection about race and the state budget meltdown.

“I know your blood must boil with some of the comments,” Rod Perry, the Scotland third selectman and sole Democrat on the board, said to Murphy, as Cynthia Bass talked about the legacy of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville.

No need for Murphy to answer that one. He’s been outspoken on Twitter and elsewhere about the outrage not only of the display of racism and nationalism, but also President Donald Trump’s inexcusable failure to call out the white supremacists by that label, as terrorists.

He asked the three whether people “in places like this” talk about the Trump-Russia investigation, “or whether it’s just cable-TV chatter.” No one answered; they just kept talking about it.

Sunday marked the start of Murphy’s second high-octane walk across the state — a planned 106 miles in 4 ½ days, similar to the walk he did last summer leading up to Labor Day. As it happened, exactly as Murphy trekked over the famous Frog Bridge into downtown Willimantic, citizens gathered for a vigil against nationalist fervor.

He told those in attendance about a visit to Jackson, Miss. with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was slain in 1963, where Evers’ blood remains entombed in the sidewalk.

“All that racism and anti-Semitism and misogyny didn’t disappear. It just went underground,” Murphy said before carefully inserting Trump, not for racism but for soft-peddling racist violence.

On this walk, he’s walking a fine line: Even though Murphy slammed Trump Saturday and tweeted that every significant political leader should speak out against the white supremacists specifically, he’s not calling out leaders who don’t.

“I’m not creating these litmus tests,” he said to me as we hiked a quiet stretch of Scotland.

Trump is just an object related to the problem, not the main subject. “This guy is 71 years old. We can hope he’s going to change but we have to look to ourselves,” Murphy said to the Willimantic crowd of about 250, largely but not overwhelmingly white.

“This is still one of the most segregated states,” he said, mentioning how black students are punished more than white students, in one example. “This is real. We have a lot of work to do.”

David Coffey, of Marlborough, told Murphy the Charlottesville incident “has given me a lot of anxiety, as the election of Trump gave me a lot of anxiety.”

Murphy repeated the theme to Coffey: “We have a lot to do. It’s not just about promoting diversity, it’s about pushing statutory policies.”

That event aside, Murphy set out on the walk to listen more than talk. He heard Wendy Sears, her 6-year-old daughter at her hip, describe how it’s growing harder for longtime residents of small Connecticut towns to stay put, with taxes and other problems. Sears, a local conservation board member, decried state spending and the inefficiency of home rule, the dominance of many towns.

“When the largest employer in the state is the state, you have a serious problem,” said Sears, who was planting flowers along a stone wall her husband had just rebuilt along Route 14.

She added, “We have 169 individual municipalities that want to remain autonomous, and you can’t do that.”

At the bucolic Windham Center green, Tyler Connelly ran from his house to meet Murphy after he and his girlfriend, Rose Veilleux, saw on Snapchat that Murphy was nearby. “When you held the floor of the U.S. Senate for tighter gun control, that was the strongest display of political integrity that I’ve seen in a long time,” Connelly told him in a low, solemn voice.

Murphy said he wasn’t sure how that June 2016 overnight event in the Senate chamber would turn out. “That’s really nice at this point to know that it meant something,” he said.

What Connelly didn’t tell Murphy was that five years ago last week, Connelly’s father bought a gun soon after he was discharged from an inpatient mental health program, and killed himself.

Over the next four days, Murphy will hear a microscopic fraction of personal stories of tragedy and a bit of triumph. The ideas swirling around Charlottesville shared the stage with a universe of ills Murphy heard at an evening town hall meeting at Eastern Connecticut State University.

At a time of hardship, Murphy spoke the one political constant of our era, without irony: “We have to understand that people want big change and we can’t be afraid to deliver it.”